One gas station photo from the Library of Congress tells many early automobile tales.
Among the thousands of images in the Library of Congress’ online digital collection, many offer insights for understanding the early U.S. petroleum industry. Details found in just one 1921 black-and-white photograph of a Washington, D.C., suburb captured an interesting scene of petroleum products’ infrastructure.
Originally printed from an eight-inch by six-inch glass negative, the library’s digital image (reproduction number: LC-DIG-npcc-30003) features Takoma Park and its railroad station on the northeastern border of the District of Columbia and Maryland.
Today a quiet residential community, Takoma Park was established in 1883 by New York venture capitalist B.F. Gilbert and was among the first railroad-accessible suburbs to downtown D.C.
“Takoma ‘s development followed a prototypical pattern for similar real estate ventures throughout the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” noted local historian Lisa Bently. “The little community was promoted as offering healthy living (it occupies land several hundred feet higher than the lowlands of downtown Washington), fresh air, and uncrowded living conditions.”
But unlike other Victorian-era commuter rail suburbs, Takoma Park’s location on a major rail line (the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad) created a thriving commercial district, Bently explained in her 1999 paper, Historic Significance of Takoma Park.
By 1893, the B&O station at Takoma Park offered commuter service to downtown D.C. for twenty cents. The station, which was destroyed by fire in 1961, can be seen in the background of the 1921 Library of Congress photo. On the nearer side of the tracks, a Dome Gas Company filling station once serviced customers with “Better Quality – Same Price” gasoline selling for 23 cents a gallon.
According to Arcadia Publishing’s Takoma Park, published in 2011, the Dome Oil Company was established by Ernest C. Ruebsam and Harry Stevens. It was among the first in D.C. to offer residents fuel oil as an alternative to coal as well as gasoline, which was then at 40 octane to 60 octane. The higher the octane number, the higher compression the fuel can withstand before detonating.
The pictured Dome Gas station’s gasoline pump featured a glass reservoir, introduced by the Tokheim Company in 1906 and instantly popular with consumers (learn more in First Gas Pump and Service Station). The pump appears to be a model manufactured by Fleckenstein Visible Gasometer Company, founded in 1916 by Jackson Fleckenstein, who was just 19 years old when he started his Grand Rapids, Michigan, pump company.
In the absence of underground storage tanks at the time, railroad tank cars like that of Hercules Petroleum Company pictured were often used as temporary storage. Hercules Petroleum of West Dallas, Texas, had a controversial association with Ajax Oil Company, including Hercules Petroleum stock sales being manipulated by sales agents of Farson, Son & Company. John Farson was indicted in 1924 and Hercules Petroleum went bankrupt not long afterward.
The photograph’s small sign on the railway trestle preserves the memory of a now forgotten lubricant once available in five pound cans. “Ebonite” was a grease that boasted “no animal fat nor any other harmful ingredients.” It also was sold in 25 pound cans for customers’ convenience.
According to the company, Ebonite’s exclusive refining process formed minute strings unlike any other transmission lubricants. It was produced by the Bayerson Oil Works of Erie, Pennsylvania. Advertisements proclaimed “Strings Cling Better Than Globules.”
The LOC photo’s early fuel oil truck was manufactured by the Garford Motor Truck Company, whose reputation for reliability had been proven when the United States Postal Service contracted for 31 Garford vehicles in 1912. The company later became Superior Body Company, associated with Studebaker Company, and was known for its school buses before closing down in 1980.
Takoma Park would earn a reputation as “Azalea City” because one of its early residents was Benjamin Morrison, a pioneer in horticulture who served as the first director of the U.S. National Arboretum. Morrison developed hybrid azaleas that can be found across the community today. Dome Oil Company co-founder Ernest Ruebsam, who had left Takoma Park by 1931, was arrested in Louisiana after an automobile accident where it was discovered he was transporting 18 gallons of alcohol, a violation of the National Prohibition Act.
The LOC digital image of the gas station at Takoma Park is from the photographic files of the National Photo Company, which covered current news events in Washington, D.C., as a daily service to its subscribers during the administrations of Presidents Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (1919-1932). Acquired by the library in 1947 from proprietor Herbert E. French, only a small selection of an estimated 80,000 photographic prints are available online.
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Citation Information – Article Title: “Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/oil-companies-gas-stations-maryland. Last Updated: December 3, 2020. Original Published Date: April 13, 2018.